“I’m happy to spend my time persuading you to read non-me poets. ”

STEPHEN BURT

Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar

I love your reviews because they read like recommendations from a close friend. There’s not a shred of vogueish disinterest or the sort of reflexive tempering of enthusiasm that dominates most serious critical writing. You’ve written that negative reviews “do their work upon their first appearances, losing, often enough, what value they have after the waves that they track have hit the shore.” Can you elaborate more on that idea, and talk about what sorts of things compel you to write about a work of literature?

Thanks. Auden talks about the uses of criticism and about the reasons to write about literature in pithy and serious ways in The Dyer’s Hand and everybody should go home and read its first three chapters. But that’s not a good enough answer here, is it? Especially since Auden chose not to review new poetry (sometimes it looks as if he reviewed everything else).

I write out of enthusiasm for a poet, a style, a handful of individual poems. I write because I want to show readers how poems and poets link up with one another, what they have in common, where they seem to come from. I write to correct what I see as widespread mistakes. I always say what I think, I write what I see, but my choice to write about A and not B, or to write 500 words on C and 2500 words on D, or to write about E when I think E’s not all that great, does not come solely from my feelings about A, B, C, D or E: I might have the time one month but not another, I might choose to write about this and not that out of debt to an editor, or because a conversation within the academy is going in a direction I’d like to encourage or forestall, or because I have a history of writing about a poet and want to keep going, or because I want to investigate a whole field new to me (such as performance poetics or Native American poetics), or because I want to be paid. None of those are compulsions, but they are all, sometimes, factors in why I write one thing and not another.

In one of your more famous essays, you argue that elliptical poets “want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” How successful have they been, in regard to both parts of that aspiration (as thoroughly, but not resembling)?

 

Some more than others, and “success” can mean either aesthetic success   (how much do I like them) or popularity, or influence. I found, and find, all the poets named successful in that I have bothered to recommend them. I think I would say that C. D. Wright and August Kleinzahler—of the writers named there—are perhaps, in their poetry, having the most fun.

At this point I’m less convinced than I was at the time that Kleinzahler even belongs in that category (to which Wright turned out to be central). But I’m convinced that we should enjoy his poems.

Would you add any new poets to that category, if you were writing the article again today?

Probably. Edwin Frank, of New York Review Books, pointed out at the time that I had left out Donald Revell, and he was correct. I’d also put in Juan Felipe Herrera, who had come to that kind of style by a different path (though his path, like Mark Levine’s, did go through Iowa). And there were, of course, other poets who were active in the 1990s pursuing very similar paths, in less individual or less exciting (to me) ways. There were a lot of them, in fact.

In your NYT profile, Mark Oppenheimer writes, “Burt has published two full-length books of his own poetry and two of the shorter volumes known as chapbooks, but in the poetry world he matters because of his criticism.” Are you bothered at all by Oppenheimer’s assessment of your being seen first as a critic and then as a poet?

Nope: it was accurate then and it’s probably still accurate now. I want everyone to read and love my own poems, of course, but I have much more confidence that your time will be well spent reading Kasischke or Armantrout or C. D. Wright (or Yeats!) than reading me, and I’m happy to spend at least some of my time and energy persuading you to read those non-me poets. (But thanks to you—the real you—for reading me!)

Hah, it's been my sincere pleasure. To what extent did that profile (titled “Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker”) serve as your “coming-out” as trans to the public at large? You’d written about characters being uncomfortable in their skin, but (as far as I’m aware) it wasn’t until Belmont, published after Oppenheimer’s piece, that you were writing directly about Stephanie.

  Good question! The NYT piece—for which I remain very grateful to Mark Oppenheimer!— ended up being sort of performative: a newspaper of record had said that I sometimes showed up to public events as Stephanie, which meant that of course now I did, or at least I could. I wore dresses and skirts to parties and public events in the 1990s, so anyone who knew me then knew that about me, but I wasn’t able to talk about myself as trans in the 2000s in the way that I can do now.

What has been the response from the queer community to poems like “Stephanie,” “So Let Am Not,” and “The Paraphilia Odes”? The latter directly addresses a larger population, “Oh my companions in microfiber and leather…”

They’re different kinds of poems, and different ways of thinking about queer communities (note the plural), and perhaps about a queer sense of community.

“The Paraphilia Odes” is about what we now call kink, and varieties of kink. It’s got several different imagined speakers, with different kinks and different relationships to imagined or experienced communities. I write autobiographically and I write about kink but I don’t write about kink autobiographically; sorry. I think that’s all I can say in response to this question about that poem.  

I can say more about the other one. “So Let Am Not” is a poem about realizing, or deciding, that I count as trans, and that I can be me, but don’t need to transition, don’t need to present as female or as feminine all the time, but only some of the time, to lead the life I want to lead. I say now that I am transfeminine, that I am both Stephen and Stephanie, that I take “he” and “she” as pronouns, that they’re both right. I appear among self-identified transwomen in print, if asked, and I certainly identify as queer.

The communities (plural) to which I belong are down with that as far as I can tell, though my participation in live community events is a sometime thing, since I’m also a teacher and a parent, and those things come first. (I could show up as Stephanie at queer cabarets three nights a week, but I actually prefer to do our kids’ bedtimes.)

I do try to make sure that I’m not presenting myself as one kind of trans person when really I’m another kind: I haven’t had all the same experiences, for example, as people who are transitioning, or people who need to transition, or people whose kind and level of dysphoria requires it. It’s important to me to support people who are transitioning, and—of course—people who have transitioned. Very often I end up explaining, to cis friends or to a cis questioner, why many people need to do that.

I used to be afraid that I’d be denounced as someone who’s trying to have it both ways, to be trans when it’s helpful but not when it’s dangerous, since, in a way, I am trying to have it both ways. But these days I feel relatively comfortable being amphibious, or ambassadorial, or emissarial, moving back and forth between subcultures and between ways of presenting myself (which is really what I’ve been doing in one way or another for a long time). I’m probably not important enough to denounce. Honestly, I’ve found nothing but support.

Well, I think your visibility a trans person has certainly been important within the poetry community, anyway. The recent anthology of poetry by trans and genderqueer poets, Troubling the Line, seemed like another step forward. Do you sense the atmosphere becoming more accommodating for trans voices?

Yes, I do! There’s a critical mass now of poets exploring trans identity and trans experience in our poetry, explicitly, which wasn’t the case when I started publishing. (Among this year’s crop, I like Cody-Rose Clevidence most, right now.) And changes in the larger culture (Jenny Boylan, Janet Mock, "Transparent" and the debates around it, to take some obvious examples) mean that when cisgendered readers encounter trans topics in poetry, those readers have some sense of what’s going on.

One of my favorite poems in Belmont is “Fictitious Girl Raised By Cats,” in which you write:

I kept my bright pink overalls, old words
for eat and sleep and shelter and come down,
and an affection that was the price of nothing,
given and taken freely, as if on a whim.

I think of Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves” (the story, not the book)—both feature young female protagonists struggling to reconcile bestial childhoods with the new demands of their human stations. I’m very interested in this poem’s appearance in a collection that deals largely with a happy suburban life of fatherhood, one that invokes the muse to “Sing for us whose troubles / are troubles we’re lucky to have.” Can you talk a little about “Fictitious Girl,” and how it corresponds with the collection as a whole?

Sure. That poem has a very clear genesis: Jessie (Burt's wife) and I were driving to a friend’s lake house in Greater Minnesota (i.e. not the Twin Cities)   and we heard a radio report about a Russian girl supposedly raised by wolves or wild dogs, and she challenged me to write about a girl raised by cats. So I did! It’s a poem about growing up with privilege in the suburbs (which I did! and we’re raising our kids that way too!) and about what gets squeezed out or pushed to the side in such an upbringing: various sorts of wildness, which in my case (cutely, paradoxically) meant pink frilly girliness (in a boy), as well as undirected proto-libidinous energy.

Also it’s a poem about why we like cats: they are super-cute and amoral, so that when they like you they really like you—they aren’t being nice out of obligation or guilt, nor out of the sense that they’ll get something from you much later (they may want wet food right now, but that’s not the same thing). That makes cats the opposite of the college prep process that privileged kids go through. I am not anti-college prep; I am pro-cat.

You are, definitively so! I'm also decidedly pro-cat. Your essay, “existentialolcaturday,” was a sensational discovery for me (it introduced me to Jarrell’s painfully lovable “Jerome”). Can you talk about when and why you wrote that?

Because we had a new cat? I’m glad you found, and glad you liked, that piece, which came about as part of a commission to write blog pieces for the Poetry Foundation, which required (as with a newspaper column) a certain number of pieces per unit time. (They do other things with their blog now.)

I’m happy to say I’ve returned to the topic of cats: I’ve got a piece in the forthcoming volume Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, all about why we like cat videos. My own contribution is a covert invitation to read Angela Leighton’s great critical book On Form, which isn’t overtly about cats at all.

As a young teen, I was a voracious reader of prose, but it wasn’t until discovering weirdo rock in early high school that I started thinking about the actual sonics of language, its ability to be compressed and whittled into all manner of dangerous and exciting forms—this quickly led me to poetry. The sense of ownership I felt about a band I’d discovered and the associate desire (compulsion?) to aggressively evangelize their work is something that now very much guides my relationship to poetry (see: this website). Can you talk about your relationship with indie rock, and how it relates to your poetry?

 

I wonder whether indie rock and the culture of indie rock (where you are rewarded for discovering obscure things and finding relations between unconnected things, but not for saying why well-known great things are so great) has had more to do with my critical practice than with how I write poetry. Actually I’m pretty sure it has.

My poems respond, I think, not to indie rock in general but to particular songs, moments, artists and bands—Aztec Camera, Breaking Circus, Scott Miller and Game Theory. I don’t think I’m done with indie bands as subjects, though lately I’ve been addressing them more (again—I was a 1990s zine writer too) in prose.

We can relate to music in ways that I think it’s almost impossible to relate to poetry—music as background noise, music as soundtrack, music as something you can share with someone who won’t pay much attention to it, music as something you can also dance to! Live performed music has been more important to me, by a lot, than live performed poetry, even though for other readers of poetry live performance of poems matters more.

It’s possible that the new Allo Darlin' record has done more for me, or to me, this year, than any poems, or at least any new poems.

I love that, the idea of music’s versatility—forgetting it behind a conversation, dancing to it. I love, too, that you chose such a simultaneously sincere and hyperliterate band to fall for. Their music strikes me as being similar in spirit to what you do in your writing. Can you talk about your connection with them?

I have written about Allo Darlin' at great length for a magazine called Five Points—it’s about their last record, "Europe."

I’ve not read that! I look forward to it. I want to touch on what you said about the record “doing more for, or to, you” than any new poems in the past year. Could you talk about what exactly you mean, what it is that important writing or important music does for/to you?

Not all great writing, not all important writing, does the same thing to me, or to any engaged reader—at least I hope not. That said, a piece of writing—or a piece of music or a work of comics or a film—that matters a lot to me gets my attention; engages strong emotion; says something about how to live, or about how other people live, that stays with me; and speaks in some unpredictable way to its own medium, and to its form.

Interview Posted: January 5, 2015

FURTHER READING

Burt's Personal Website
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Poetry Foundation Profile
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Poets.org Profile and Poems
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Burt's Poetry TED Talk
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